by Eric M. Walters
Reposted from Board Game Geek and shortened.
There are a lot of games on the 1942 Gazala battles in North Africa--more to the point, there's quite a number of comparable size and scale titles in print at the time of this writing, to include Decision Games' folio game, Cauldron: Battle for Gazala (basically a redesign/remake of the old SPI folio, Cauldron), Revolution Games' Gazala: The Cauldron, Avalanche Press's Gazala 1942, and LPS's Gazala Line 1942. So why did the folks at Lock 'n Load Publishing, LLC. decide to update Jim Webaneth's DTP game on the subject to create Rommel At Gazala (Second Edition)? What could be different about it compared to the others?
The Gazala battles are the closest thing to the World War II North African Campaign as the Battle of Gettysburg is to the American Civil War. The situation is simply too interesting; it can't help but attract a lot of attention. Like Gettysburg, each title on the topic generates ideas on how to design a better game or a more faithful simulation. So, part of the difference is in the approach of the designer, as will be explained later.
The situation itself is incredibly tense. Rommel takes a huge gamble in outflanking the Commonwealth fortified line far to the south, but doesn't have the forces to both plunge into the rear area in force and guard his tenuous supply line. He ends up forming his striking group into a tight perimeter behind Commonwealth lines with his back up against extensive Allied defensive minefields, trying to breach them to bring his supplies through before the Commonwealth smashes him in his relatively static positions. Of course, this succeeds and he is able to take Tobruk.
The question is how to generate nerve-wracking tension at both the operational level, faithfully replicating the risks and dilemmas for both sides, as well as the heart-stopping outcomes of battles on a turn of a die. Every game on the Gazala campaign is going to do this somewhat differently. It also must be said that these games are going to appeal to different sorts of players and this has to be taken into account when making judgments about any particular title.
The Intended Audience.
I'll go out on a limb here and argue that this game is primarily intended for new wargamers. Not that more experienced players won't find things to like--some will. But some will not. When I get to the end of my impressions of the game, I'll talk about that. But understand I'm going to be talking about this particular title from the perspective of a relatively novice player. As we can see on the back of the new edition box, it says that the game:
"is a quick-playing, accessible game. It is sufficiently easy for new players to enter into board wargaming, but with enough possibilities to offer significant replay value to newcomer and veteran player alike. Counter density is low, letting the players focus on strategy more than minute, and the pace is fast."
The package and system would seem to support this. Counters have the usual combat and movement factors. Fairly typical CRT and TEC, the standard IGO-UGO sequence of play, Zones Of Control (ZOCs) that force combat when adjacent (except when there's intervening Minefield or Tobruk Fortification Line hexsides) but don't lock players into them--units can always move away. Overruns are possible. There's a Rommel Headquarters counter! Air is handled through points, expenditures accounted for on a track. Six sided die included for combat adjudication and other requirements (like the Axis rolling to find gaps in the Allied minefields).
As I think you'll see, all of that back box blurb is true--in the main, as a generality. But the devil is in the details. So let's get into it:
The Box: Thick, glossy, durable, and the right size for the game inside. It's an attractive package. That said, the historians will notice a glaring error in the blurb on the back of the box; the second paragraph ends saying the campaign happened in May and June 1941, which is a year earlier than when it actually happened. Okay, proofing error. No big deal.
The Map: Functional, colorful enough to be attractive. Not sure why it's in two pieces when it could have been made into a single sheet. Marco Arnaudo notices this with another recent LNL second edition title, Corps Command: Totensonntag. Not a big deal to me, since I put both mapboards and mapsheets under plexiglass anyway. But it might be an irritation for some.
The Counters: Nice, rounded, thick, durable pieces that aren't fancy but functional. Best of all, these old eyes can read the historical designations on the sides of the counters. Only problem is that there is some errata for them (1st South African Division brigades are mislabeled as part of the 2nd South African Division, but this point is made within the rulebook). The 5th Indian Division designation is "51" and not "5I" for those counters. None of these minor glitches really affect set up and play at all.
The Charts/Tables: There are two double-sided and colorful cards with the required charts and tables to play. One has the turn record track and also tracks armor losses and air points. On the back is a game map reproduction. You'll not need that and will generally have the tracks face up with the counters on them. There's a reduced CRT on it, a nice touch, as the other card has the full size version with the Terrain Effects Chart on the other side. You could put both charts under plexiglass on one end of the map--one with the track side up, the other with the TEC up--and have what you need to play. Or just have the one track card face up and pass the TEC card back and forth between players until those are understood. Only problem here is that the combat effect for an Allied Box is wrong--Rule 9.10 on page 6 of the rulebook clearly states that Allied units in an Allied Box are doubled on defense. This is confirmed in LNL's online forum for the game. Okay, another proofing error. Irritating at most. I was missing these when I first got the game mail order from LNL; they promptly sent them to me when I told them about it via a support ticket on their website. Didn't stop me from playing since I had the charts from the earlier DTP version.
The Rules: These are very attractively laid out in color with only a hair over 8 pages of rules and another page and a half of set-up instructions and victory conditions. Examples of play are not included. This is perhaps the only problem if this is marketed to new wargamers; while more experienced players won't have any problem whipping through the text in minutes and sitting down to play, this is not a rulebook a new player can teach themselves with. They'll need someone with some experience across the table to help get them through some of the usual wargame-arcane concepts and how they integrate together. Still, this is a relatively simple system and not hard to grasp. Best of all, the rules are--for the most part--written very clearly.
The game introduction in the rulebook repeats the same historical error we see on the back of the box--it says the battles were fought in 1941 instead of the actual date in 1942. This error carries over into the v1.1 of the Living Rules, available through the LNL Forums website. Grr. That said, there's just a few areas where the rules are a bit too terse, ambiguous, or just plain have some holes:
-- 6.0 Both these rules for movement and the Terrain Effects Chart say that it costs 1/2 movement allowance for Axis units to cross minefield hexes and the Tobruk fortification line. That works fine for Axis units with even Movement Allowances. It's the ones with odd-numbered allowances that are a problem--Italian motorized division, regiment, and the armor regiment with Movement Allowances of "9," German Panzergrenadier regiments with "15." Does the player round up or down? Seasoned players will automatically think to round down--that's the usual convention in such things, but new players would like not to fuss about this. But, when the Living Rules posted online are consulted, fractions are ROUNDED UP for minefield hex sides. Wow. That's counterintuitive for the expert. But what about the Tobruk Fortified Line? Nothing explicit on that. So, what works the goose will also have to work the gander. Would have been nice to include this ruling for both instances instead of just one.
There's also an explicit rule that the halving is based on the Movement Allowance the unit starts with, not its printed factor, so that Out Of Supply units can cross minefield hex sides. But again--what about the Tobruk Fortified Line? Experienced players will be quick to adopt the same rule for both terrain features when moving Out Of Supply units across them. New players may or may not be so quick. It's very important to get this right: the difference of even one movement factor can mean everything in this game!
-- 7.5 In both the printed rules and Living Rules, it says that only one Axis unit can check for gaps in the Commonwealth minefield per minefield hexside instead of moving in the movement phase. It says that a stack of Axis units could have each one check a different hexside. But then it says the different units could "combine on the same one." There's no clarifications on what that means. The Axis can only find a gap rolling a "1" on a 1D6. So there would seem to be no advantage to combining units against a single hexside. It also makes one wonder whether or not two units--both on opposite sides of the minefield hexside, could both roll for a gap. There's nothing that seems to prohibit that in the rules.
-- 9.9. Advance after combat. The problem here is that the rules aren't explicit on how far a victorious attacker can advance when the defending stack is eliminated in certain circumstances. For an "E" result on the CRT, one can easily surmise it may be as much as three, depending on forces "in the backfield." But if a defending unit or stack of two steps suffers a 3 result and the owning player chooses to lose both steps--eliminating the stack--how far can the attacker advance? The rules aren't clear. Alternatively, if one step is lost and the defender retreats two hexes, then it is clear--the attacker can advance two hexes. The way I've interpreted the situation is that if the defender loses two steps on a result of 3, then the attacker can only advance into the defender's hex and that's it. Likewise, if a one-step defender is eliminated on a 3 result, then the attacker can advance 2 hexes, the first one being the defender's.
-- 10.1 The printed ruleset says the Axis player gets 15 Air Points per turn. But the Air Point track only runs up to 12 and indicates that's what the Axis player starts with! The Living Rules fixes this at 12 points, but again, this is a niggling problem for the newbie to have to deal with!
-- 11.4. What exactly happens when there is one AT or AA battalion stacked with an Axis defending non-armor unit when attacked by British infantry tanks? What happens when the Axis defending unit is armor, stacked with either the AT or AA battalion? The rule seems to mean that just one of these two battalions negates ALL bonuses the Allied player could earn due to armor or due to infantry support tanks. But it doesn't quite come across that way; it says:
"If the Axis player is defending in the Allied Combat Phase, and the force in combat includes either of the German anti-tank and anti-aircraft battalions, then the British player cannot receive bonuses for either having armor or infantry support tanks."
I've gotten in heated arguments about that phrasing. Some of my opponents have suggested this means that these battalions negate "EITHER having armor OR infantry support tanks bonus." One surmises that in the first example, the Allied shift would be reduced from +2 down to +1 (this is EITHER/OR, after all!). In the second example, them the Axis armor would negate the Allied Armor but not the infantry support tanks, so the AT or AA battalion would be used to ensure no positive shift. What if the Axis player stacks BOTH the AT and AA battalions TOGETHER on top of a non-armor unit? Wouldn't that suffice to cut the positive shift of +2 down to 0? That was my opponent's view, given how he interpreted this. None of this is perfectly clear in the rules and an example to illustrate how such procedures work would be very useful.
If my perception is correct, I'd rephrase this to mean: "If the Axis player is defending in the Allied Combat Phase, and the force in combat includes at least one of the German anti-tank and anti-aircraft battalions, then the British player cannot receive ANY bonuses for having armor and/or infantry support tanks."
If my opponent's perspective is correct, I'd rephrase this rule to read: "If the Axis player is defending in the Allied Combat Phase, and the force in combat includes one of either of the German anti-tank or anti-aircraft battalions, then ONE of these battalions negates ONE of the shifts due to armor and/or infantry support tanks. If the defending Axis stack contains an armor unit which negates the British armor shift bonus, then the battalion can negate a shift due to infantry support tanks. If the defending Axis stack is a non-armor unit with one battalion defending against British infantry support tanks, then the British shift bonus is reduced from +2 to +1. If both the AT and AA battalions are stacked with an Axis non-armor unit, then the British would not benefit from any bonuses by attacking with an armor or an infantry support tank unit."
12.0 Replacements. There has been some questions on how this actually works in the LNL forum for the game, although the rules on this seem clear enough. Non-armor replacements can be drawn on game turn 4 and every game turn thereafter where there is a reduced unit on the board in supply or a unit in the dead pile that can be brought back at reduced strength. So far, so good. For armor units, they only come back every third game starting with game turn 4, and only if there are enough recovery points to generate a replacement. It could be on game turn 4, neither player can generate an armor replacement because they don't have an armor recover point to expend at that time. They may have to wait until they do. When they do, the clock is reset and they can't draw any more--even if they've got the recovery points to use--until three game turns after their last armor replacement draw. Yes, you can draw BOTH armor and non-armor replacements on the same turn.
But how does it play?
Gameplay tends to be positional, trying to achieve good positions to attack and kill enemy units (Axis mindset) or to defend one's own units and possibly cause attrition against Axis attacks (Allied mindset)--the Allies get more points for damaging and eliminating Axis units than the Axis does doing the same to the Allies. The differentials between levels of victory tend to go in 10 point increments; either player needs ten more points than his opponent to gain at least a tactical victory; 20 more to get a substantial victory, and a whopping 30 to get a "crushing" victory. Expect most games to be a war of inches in this regard, slowly accumulating points for enemy casualties. However, the "ringers" are that the Axis gets 25 points for taking Tobruk and the Allied player gets 15 points if Rommel's headquarters is eliminated. Careful play on both sides after a number of games will mean it's very hard to get those big point bonuses for either player. So it's going to boil down to the accumulation of losses over the course of the game.
Lest you think this makes the game something of a set-piece, actual play will reveal that the illusion of far-ranging movement is quite strong, mostly due to high movement factors for mechanized/motorized units coupled with an unlimited "tether" length for supply, unlike other games on this campaign. Still, such slashing movements have to be precisely aimed--a mistake of one hex often will be catastrophic.
The Axis Problem:
Unlike some other Gazala games, the German player has a great deal of discretion in his setup, specifically regarding the bulk of German mobile forces, the Italian mobile units, and Rommel's headquarters. It's easy to want to set up where the Axis is going to put the main effort down south to seize the Bir Hacheim box and then cut behind the Commonwealth. The problem is that the Italians are just so vulnerable in the north and are easy meat for Allied attacks in that area--remember, Axis casualties are worth more than Allied ones and these units are easy pickings. Some Axis players will set up the main effort north, going for the very highest odds attacks as possible--even through Allied minefield hexes--to bang down some of these units for a few turns though spoiling attacks. It's risky given that attacks through minefields will always incur a step loss on the attacking force--and often more, depending on the combat result. So it's a decision not to be taken lightly. One can argue that the Axis is going to take step losses no matter what in this area; why risk German losses attacking across minefield hexsides? If the Italians are brought in, then what's the point of doing this if they are going to take the step losses instead? Sort of defeats the purpose.
The British attack an Italian Infantry Division with two South African brigades and a brigade of Infantry Support Tanks. If the Germans didn't reinforce the Italian Division with the AT battalion, the attack would go in from a combat factor ratio of 2:1 to include both the Armor and the Infantry Support Tank shifts to 4:1, provided neither side used air. But, given my reading of the rules for these German battalions, that one AT battalion knocks out BOTH shifts so the attack goes in at 2:1.
But, some will decide to do this at any rate. Once some British units are taken down a peg and or the Allied position compromised, then the bulk of the PanzerArmee can rapidly move south, attempt to take Bir Hacheim held by that awesome Free French Brigade, and threaten the Allied rear. The only other option is to split German combat power to stiffen the Italians and attack down south with what is left. In my games, the entire 90th "Africa" Mechanized/Panzergrenadier Division was left up north with at least one of the AT/AA battalions if not both. Figuring out the proper allocation of forces at start is a big part of the game's interest and challenge for the Axis player.
No matter what allocation is made, once the Axis mobile forces move south, take Bir Hacheim, and move north in the Allied rear, much care has to be exercised to forecast Allied reactions. Stick the Axis neck out too far, and it can be sliced. Having to create an Out-Of-Supply hedgehog far removed from any help--even with Rommel--is sure to end up with a high tally of Axis casualties, even if it manages to wriggle free. The Axis must move his mobile forces is such a way they can't quite get completely hemmed in, but offer numerous other possibilities to advance and the Allied player is made to feel that the safer course is to build a defense in favorable terrain, rather than venture out into open desert and get surrounded and killed.
The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the Italian Ariete division attack the valiant Free French brigade in the Bir Hacheim Box. This looks like an awesome attack, but consider that the French are doubled in the box to 14 combat factors. The German Panzer Divisions generate 42 factors and the Italians 10, for a total of 52. That's a 3:1 ratio, bumped up to 5:1 for Rommel and armor against non-armor. So commitment of air decisions are going to be interesting. The Axis will likely decide to assume the British will commit all six of his air points to such a crucial contest for a total defense strength of 20. Just 8 Axis air points applied bumps up the attack strength to 60--maintaining the basic 3-1 to a modified 5-1 attack, leaving 4 air points to be applied elsewhere.
The Axis must keep a very close eye on the casualty totals as well as ensuring Rommel's headquarters is never left vulnerable. A good Allied player will be watching as well...and calculating when it's the best time to "cut and run" back to the Tobruk Fortified Line. Once that happens, it's going to be very hard to break in if the Allies still have a significant preponderance of forces. The place can be made practically impregnable if enough forces are left. What this means for the Axis player is that he will never be free of taking serious risks to advance his spatial position on the board--it often becomes a dilemma between going after Allied units in prepared positions in a lock-step manner but allowing them to pull back into the Tobruk perimeter when the clock begins to run out, or making a daring bid to maneuver around those defenses, risking counterattacks, but accelerating the offensive timetable so a battle for Tobruk happens sooner rather than later, and when the Allies are less prepared for it.
One of the most potent offensive tools the Axis has is how advance after combat works. The CRT gives results in whole numbers, which correspond to either step losses or hexes retreated by the defenders. If the next is vacated, then the attacker can advance that same number of hexes, ignoring enemy Zones of Control. As one can imagine, at high odds attacks these can be devastating for a defender who doesn't have enough steps to soak up the numbers and stay in the hex or who decides the defenders must retreat. Now, the number of hexes that the attacker can advance depends on how many hexes the defender retreats, or, if all the defenders are eliminated by an "E" result, the advance can be up to 3 hexes. I've already detailed a bit of ambiguity in this rule earlier and won't go over it again.
What this means--coupled with the rule that units which end their Movement Phase adjacent to an enemy (without an intervening minefield hexside or Tobruk Fortification Line) MUST attack--is that victorious unit advances force counterattacks in the following opponent turn, or, tactical retrogrades out of contact. This is really potent for both players, but especially for the Axis. Sometimes a unit in really good defensive terrain (outside a minefield hexside/box/Tobruk Fortified Line) can be levered out of position through such advance after combat maneuvers. Usually this means escarpments, as attackers have to halve their attack factors across it. It cuts both ways! A defending Commonwealth unit behind an Escarpment may find an advance after combat unit is adjacent on the other side...and declines to counterattack in its turn but moves away instead!
Another terrific advantage of the Axis is how agile the force is in massing combat power. Some of this is due to German mobile units with high movement factors and high combat strengths. But the other contributors are Rommel's Headquarters, good for a favorable column shift on attack and defense, as well as the preponderance of airpower--that outnumbers the British capability 2:1--anywhere on the map. This is key in mounting operational dilemmas on the Allies--if they try to defend everything, they are spread too thin and the Axis can mass against the weakest point with overwhelming power.
The Allied Problem:
This is fundamentally a time-distance-force strength issue. The Axis has to be kept out of range of Tobruk until the last possible moment. When the Axis can finally attack the Tobruk Fortification Line, there must be too many Allied forces that are manning it and there's not enough time for the Axis to get past it and take the port. This means sacrificing forces to some extent--blood buys time. The key is figuring out how much blood can be safely expended and how much blood is drawn from the Axis. The concept is that the Axis expends at least as much blood (which is worth more victory points) than the Allies, if not more.
This sounds like a purely defensive problem, positioning forces where attackers are at a disadvantage (e.g., minefield hex sides, Allied Boxes, escarpments, and the Tobruk Fortification Line), but that won't be enough. It's very easy to try and defend all the approaches--and the Axis will almost always find a weakness to mass against. So there must be an offensive component to the defensive concept, one that's more than just providing for a mobile defense/reserves to reinforce threatened areas or mount counterattacks against penetrations.
Offensive forays--especially those that can cause Italian casualties and possibly even threaten Axis sources of supply if that player doesn't react to initial moves in this direction--ought to be studied and occasionally executed when the gain is worth the risk. The Axis will have to pull forces away to deal with it, which gains valuable time and disrupts the fascist offensive timetable. This may be all that's needed to bring on a much needed replacement or two at the right time to bolster a hard-pressed defense.
Airpower use will be most often defensively in complicating Axis attack calculations, but is sometimes best employed to bolster attacks in the Allied turn, especially if the Axis has expended all his air and committing aircraft raises the odds a column for an attack.
The Allied player should constantly pay attention to where his leg infantry brigades are versus his mobile ones. Where he puts his mobile ones are important for the Axis to feel he's got to be able to react to them if they can march far across the board to attack something vulnerable (e.g., Italians). The dilemma is that there won't be enough leg infantry to defend everywhere; whatever can be spared to act as a latent threat should be positioned in such a way so that the Axis player can't get comfortable and usually feels like taking precautions and minimizing his risks.
The Commonwealth/Allies must try to conserve armor, especially the infantry support tanks. There's not too many of the latter and they should make a difference when and where employed.
The Allies must be very wary of getting out from behind the Allied Boxes, escarpments, minefield hexsides, and the Tobruk Fortification Line. Once out in the open, it takes a lot of units to be strong enough to resist Axis attacks effectively--and that means economizing elsewhere...often in a place that the Axis can reach either that turn or the next. If the Allied player has to do that, do everything possible to at least gain a turn through an Axis redeployment to a different and more vulnerable spot in the line. Even then, it may not be worth it. No hard and fast advice can be offered--everything is situationally dependent. Worse thing in the world is finding a stack of brigades in the open being the attention of two Panzer Divisions and a Mechanized Divison, with Rommel there and all the airpower the Axis can muster--suffering significant numbers on the CRT and owning players becoming torn between losing lots of steps or retreating in a way that compromises the defense through Axis advances after combat!
One way to set up the initial Tobruk defensive "speed bump!" The back door is open on the extreme east edge in any case--a serious defense will need many more units!
The initial unit setup behind the Tobruk Fortification Line merely gums up a small Axis raiding force but will be nothing more than a speed bump against a determined drive. The Allied player decision when to pull back will be an important one, especially if playing with the 10.4 Optional Rule that causes the permanent loss of 2 Allied Air Ports for the Axis capture of El Adem and Bir El Gobi.
So How Does the Game Stack Up to Others?
For the new player, this is a terrific starter wargame. The drawback--and how significant this is depends greatly on the situation--is that new players are best advised to have an experienced wargamer teach them the game, at least the way the rules are currently written. If the Living Rules eventually close off the holes I've outlined here, that drawback would diminish. But right now, that's the major limitation. The good news is that its main contender as a starter game--Gazala Line 1942--also suffers from a few small rules problems.
For the veteran or even grognard gamer, this title will appeal to some but not to others. The competitors will love it, once the rules issues are agreed upon. While simple, the game is not simplistic. I can't speak to balance at this point but I can see the challenges for both sides and they are demanding. Definitely tense in both deciding on what maneuvers to try and sweating through risky attacks. Highly, highly demanding; the play precision required to win is right up there.
That said, there's going to be features that bother some of the more simulation-minded folks who play for history:
-- The supply line rules are going to pique some Africa grognards. Not a lot of wargames on this topic are this generous. Once players achieve a certain level of competence, it will be rare that this rule of unlimited hex length free of enemy units/non-negated enemy ZOCs leads to unrealistic situations. But it could (and likely will) happen from time to time.
-- Escarpments seem awfully easy to move through and attack/over. The penalties appear to be quite generous compared to other games. I've not seen this terrain firsthand to make the kind of judgments that would be needed to validate the decision of the designer, but I am positive this treatment will stick in the craws of some.
-- No Axis minefields. Really. There were some in the battle, but you wouldn't know it from playing the game. This means the Commonwealth has even larger incentives than usual to take the Italians to the woodshed in the north, especially if PanzerArmee Africa masses to the south and moves out to flank the line there.
-- Chesslike feel to the game. While there is the illusion of wide-ranging and reckless movement, there's movement to be sure--but it's very precise and calculated. That's not very much like desert warfare as we read about it in the history books. Well, this is a game. Folks who want limited intelligence and all that other stuff are advised to play the 1995 XTR game of the same name (Rommel at Gazala), or...better yet...Rommel in the Desert.
Regarding how well this compares to other titles, I'd put in the same league as LPS's Gazala Line 1942, although I think this is a better game given the greater illusion of movement and action, instead of the slowly building operation over a series of impulses. I also think this is a better entry-level title than the other ones mentioned, which to me are still good as introductory games but not AS good. This title still appeals to the veteran looking for something a little less detailed and intricate that some of the other Gazala games of comparable size and scale. Something to play between moves in DAK2, for example. However, some of the simplifications may not be to many grognards' liking; such players will want the other titles that don't simplify as much at the cost of more detailed/involved game procedures and rules.
So what's the bottom line? Do I recommend it?
-- For new players, definitely--provided they are learning it at the hands of an experience gamer who can come up with house rules coping with the above-mentioned issues. This will likely change to an unreserved recommendation once the Living Rules catch up and fully address the few problems that exist.
-- For experienced players, only with reservation. If they are competition-minded and like simpler but not simplistic games that reward precise play, I think this title is worth investigating. But if they are historically-minded and play primarily for simulation value, then I think they are best advised to pass this one by. In this situation, I'm not sure any of the other comparable-sized Gazala games will quite meet the mail for these folks either, although some might be less objectionable than others.